Too quiet on sex ed

The Boston Globe
October 9, 2013

By Scot Lehigh

The Boston mayoral candidates have talked about a great many things, often at great length, in this year’s campaign.

A longer school day. Late-night T service. Transit-oriented housing. A greener city. Innovation. The arts. The BRA. Congestion. Building heights. Parking requirements. Bike lanes.

Their weight and eating habits, even.

And yet, on one important topic, the two finalists have shied away from a full and frank public discussion: Teenage sexual activity and its attendant problems.

Both City Councilor John Connolly and state Representative Martin Walsh have expressed support for the Boston School Committee’s decision to implement a wellness policy that includes broader sex education and, with counseling, condom distribution.

But Marty Walz, president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and its advocacy arm, the Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund, says that public discussion of those issues has been so muted that Planned Parenthood won’t be making an endorsement for mayor.

“When the city’s high-school dropout rate is more than double the statewide average and teen parenting is a leading reason for dropping out, it’s deeply concerning that no mayoral candidate has a platform that prioritizes comprehensive sexuality education,” says Walz. “The general election is less than five weeks away and voters are still waiting to hear how John Connolly and Marty Walsh will champion the health of Boston’s young people.”

There’s been more boldness in the City Council races. Planned Parenthood has endorsed three at-large candidates: incumbent Ayanna Pressley, who has made this cause her own, as well as hopefuls Jack Kelly and Jeff Ross. Although the organization doesn’t usually endorse in district races, it has backed District 9 Councilor Mark Ciommo, whose district includes Allston, where Planned Parenthood’s Boston facility is located.

Walz, a former state legislator, knows this is a difficult topic for politicians.

“The issue of teen sexuality can make some people feel uncomfortable, which makes it hard to talk about,” she says. “But there are major consequences for our schools and for public health.”

Consider: Boston’s annual high-school dropout rate is more than double the statewide average, and one big reason is teen parenthood. Pregnancy and dropping out put many teens on a tough-to-reverse trajectory toward long-term economic struggles. A teen mother is far less able to land a decent job and much more likely to end up on welfare.

Pregnancy isn’t the only problem associated with teenage sexual activity, of course. There’s also the problem of sexually transmitted disease and infection. The rate of chlamydia among Boston’s 15- to 19-year-olds, for example, has increased significantly over the last decade or so. Still, substantial percentages of sexually active Boston teenagers report that they don’t reliably use condoms.

Sex education curriculums are often characterized by opponents as programs that, by imparting sexual information and distributing contraceptives, simply encourage teenage sex. But actually, teens who have taken such a curriculum are more likely both to delay sexual activity and to use contraception correctly when they do have sex.

Walz notes that the curriculum needs to be age-appropriate. In middle school, that means helping students learn to recognize — and extricate themselves from — exploitative or abusive relationships, with an emphasis on delaying sexual activity. In high school, such a curriculum would include more sexual information. It would also include condom availability, though under the policy the Boston School Committee approved in June, only after “appropriate health education and counseling services.” Further, parents and legal guardians can prevent their children from having access to them.

Mind you, this won’t be a departure for many Boston schools; it’s already the policy in 19 of the city’s 32 high schools. That policy has yet to be implemented, however, and Walz worries that unless the next mayor is committed, and vocally so, it may well lose momentum.

Spokespeople for both candidates insist they strongly back the school department’s new policy. But this is an opportunity to lead, to explain the rationale behind the policy, to help shape public opinion.

It would behoove them both to speak up on the issue.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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